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Our Views: Money for asphalt drying up

No one’s sure how to pay for transportation repairs, but we’ll pay dearly without them

POSTED: August 10, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Of all the modern conveniences we take for granted — a light goes on at the flip of a switch, water comes out at the turn of a tap — our roads and highways rank high on the list.

But our marvelous system of roads, highways and interstates are crumbling with age and in desperate need of repair and upgrades, along with infrastructure like bridges, overpasses and drainage culverts.

Funding for such needs is expensive, and a five-year recession depleted most public coffers of transportation funds when other priorities took precedence. Now we face a growing reality: Find a way to pay for transportation fixes or suffer the negative impact to our safety and economy.

We already know traffic is choking off commerce. The time we spend sitting in gridlock is unproductive, even in the smartphone era. Not only has the population continued to swell, but the influx of new residents and the children of baby boomers reaching driving age has put more people on the roads.

In addition, we move more products and services over pavement than ever before. A generation ago, pizza or food delivery was an occasional luxury; now it’s an everyday expectation. At one time, most items were delivered by the post office; now trucks from various couriers clog highways as they move goods along.

So it’s clear we can’t ignore the need to expand and repair our roads and bridges. The big question is: Where does the money come from?

As with many government responsibilities, most people want the results but don’t want to pay the bill. Nobody likes higher taxes, of course, but transportation money has dwindled at all levels. There is no magic money tree, so government officials have a limited number of options to pay for the most critical needs.

One plan floated two years ago was a Georgia sales tax aimed at transportation needs on a regional basis. But voters resoundingly rejected the plan in all but three areas of the state, including North Georgia, saying they didn’t trust officials to spend such money wisely.

Now the state is left with a few unpleasant alternatives: Raise taxes, pull more money out of the general fund or let the roads fall apart.

Last week, the Senate passed a House bill that allocated $10.8 billion to keep highway and transit programs going through next May. The president signed it Friday, yet it’s a short-term fix at best.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Georgia last week urging lawmakers to spend federal transportation dollars wisely. Even with those, state and local governments must chip in to the pot or there won’t be enough to address the most serious needs. He advocates a 10-cent rise in the federal gasoline tax, a hard sell in any era.

There are downsides to that idea beyond just higher prices at the pump. Businesses that move goods around would be forced to raise prices to keep up with costs. That $10 pizza special brought to your door would cost a few dollars more. All products delivered to retail stores or supermarkets could come with higher price tags as well.

It also could discourage driving, with some folks staying off the road to save gas. That might help with traffic and pollution, but in the long run would slice into the expected tax revenue, defeating the purpose.

And as usual, politics intercedes. In Georgia, the push to address transportation concerns in more congested urban areas meets resistance from rural lawmakers who want their share of such money. So everyone is scrambling to grab from pool of cash that is drying up fast.

Hall County planners have listed their top 10 long-term transportation needs. The list, included on this page, includes improving traffic flows and easing congestion on some of the heavily traveled arteries in the area, along with improving transit, pedestrian and bicycle transport.

Including transit in the mix makes sense as a cost-effective alternative, provided it doesn’t take resources away from other uses. Anti-sprawl advocates often push public transit initiatives at the exclusion of other needs and beyond how many people actually use it. Today’s workers often need to get around on the job, not just go point-to-point on a bus or train. Truth is Americans prefer personal transportation, so expanding and improving roads should remain the top spending priority.

Another idea is to increase the number of toll roads, creating more of a “pay as you go” system. That can work, but needs to be tied to actual expansion and not charge taxpayers for freeway lanes they’ve already paid for, as with the Interstate 85 HOT lanes.

The most reasonable idea may be to take a percentage of the general tax fund and target it specifically for transportation. The same case can be made for other critical needs like public safety, health and education. For such a plan to work, lawmakers must quit spending on pet projects and unnecessary items so all of our precious tax money can go to where it is needed most.

State Sen. Steve Gooch of Dahlonega, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding, said legislators are looking to create a funding mechanism that doesn’t necessarily raise taxes but find “a dependable, steady revenue stream.”

What they need is a divining rod to find that stream — be it in the form of targeted taxes, fees, tolls or even the dreaded “p” word, privatization.

It again comes back to whom we choose at the ballot box. In this year’s elections, candidates need to lay out their carefully conceived transportation plans for voters to consider. Anyone running for office who fails to treat this issue seriously should be sent back down the pothole-filled roads from whence they came.


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